Laurel Christensen, AIA, WELL AP is an Architect and Sustainable Design Leader at Dyer Brown Associates in Boston, MA where she supports firm-wide and project-specific sustainability initiatives including adoption and implementation of the AIA Materials Pledge.
She also serves as Director of Outreach and Engagement for the nonprofit organization Mindful MATERIALS where she focuses on building industry partnerships and relationships to enable the proliferation of sustainable product choices throughout the industry. Trained in Lean thinking with a passion for materials health, she consistently challenges her peers and project teams to consider the wide-ranging impacts of their design and project management decisions.
As co-chair of the Carbon Leadership Forum Boston/New England Chapter’s Reuse Subcommittee she has worked to grow the community of reuse advocates in her market, recently co-authoring a Reuse Roadmap to provide guidance to industry stakeholders interested in reuse.
SM: What is your role and how long have you worked in it?
LC: I am a licensed Architect and Sustainable Design Leader at Dyer Brown in Boston, and I’ve been in that particular role for about a year and a half. That’s a new role to our firm and one that I helped to create in conjunction with our firm leadership. My other role is Director of Outreach and Engagement at Mindful Materials. I split my time 50/50 between the two roles and organizations.
SM: Why do healthier materials matter to you?
LC: Harmful chemicals like endocrine disruptors and neurotoxins are prevalent in our building products (and consumer goods).
Those upstream and downstream impacts are ‘out of sight out of mind’ in many ways, but something I try to consider when selecting materials. To make an educated decision about those types of impacts you need transparency from the product manufacturers themselves. Unfortunately, there is an overall lack of transparency in the building product industry, and transparency is a necessary first step to understanding the impacts of our materials selections so that we can start to make better, and healthier, decisions.
SM: Describe your approach to materials, your process and any tools you use to inform yourself.
LC: I was introduced to the topic of healthy materials through mindful MATERIALS. From there, I took a Parson’s Healthy Materials and Sustainable Buildings course which was very eye-opening. I then worked to get our firm, Dyer Brown to sign onto the AIA materials pledge.
The framework of the pledge and the mindful MATERIALS Common Materials Framework provide a helpful lens that I always reference for material decisions. If I can find a product that hits all five marks (meaning it addresses Human Health, Climate Health, Ecosystem Health, Social Health and Equity, and Circularity), that is what I consider a gold star. Some other great resources I recommend are the Healthy Building Network’s Product Guidance, which helps you understand what product categories to stay away from and what some healthier alternatives are, and also Building Green’s ‘Spec This, Not That’ guide.
SM: What are some strategies or facts you use to advocate for healthier, more sustainable materials in your projects?
Frankly, sometimes we have clients whose budget is their number one concern. At that point we have the responsibility to know what products are available and healthy that aren’t more expensive. I think that for me its about understanding what’s most important to your audience or who you are talking to. Then you can use that to guide the discussion towards healthier materials.
SM: What do you think is the most important language or standard to include in your spec for healthier buildings
LC: Mindful MATERIALS is working to develop specifications language that brings the Common Materials Framework into baseline specifications, incorporating the impact areas of human health, climate health, ecosystem health, social health and equity, and circularity. If the entire industry (not only designers and specifiers but also owners, purchasers, and manufacturers), can start to speak a common language around healthy materials, we will really start to see a proliferation of healthy materials in the market. This kind of alignment is necessary to really see healthy materials become the norm for all projects.
SM: Have you worked on any projects that prioritized healthy materials? What worked well and what challenges did you run into? What are some of your biggest lessons learned?
LC: Yes, with Dyer Brown most of the projects we work on are corporate interiors. In the studio I work in, our clients are typically the building landlord or the property manager. They’re working on a tight budget, a tight schedule, and usually have their own building standard finishes. This means it’s far from a Living Building Challenge or LEED project. I am particularly interested in that segment of the market that involves projects that don’t have sustainability goals. How can we work in some different finishes that are going to meet the budget and be safer choices?
When it comes to textiles and high-touch surfaces we try to have them be formaldehyde-free or have no added urea formaldehyde for millwork or cabinetry. We specify low-VOC paints and avoid LVT and choose linoleum or bio-based polyurethane flooring, which isn’t perfect but is still better than vinyl flooring.
As far as lessons learned, we’ve used a lot of bio-based polyurethane flooring instead of LVT. We have switched projects that were going to go with LVT toward the Wineo Purline flooring which we have been using a lot more.
SM: Can you share some of your favorite healthy material manufacturers which we could share with our community?
LC: I would say Humanscale is definitely up there. They’re a great brand and a great company. They take a holistic look at their manufacturing, from the inputs to the production and I would say they check all the boxes. They’re furniture manufacturers that I often look to. For flooring and carpets, I really lean into Shaw and Interface. The other big piece that I’ve really been working on at Dyer Brown is looking at reducing construction and demolition waste on our projects and specifying materials from manufacturers that have take-back programs and can be recycled or remanufactured. .
I also co-chair a sub-committee of our local Carbon Leadership Forum chapter focused on Reuse. We actually created a playbook called the “The Reuse Roadmap”. One of the things we’re trying to do on all projects that include a demolition scope, we look for materials we can keep out of landfill, and if there are any that can be sent back to the manufacturer to recycle or re-manufacture.
We have partnered with Shaw specifically to make sure we’re sending Shaw tiles back to them to be remanufactured. The other one is Armstrong Ceilings – they’ll take back anyone’s ceiling tiles. I do try to think holistically about all five of those impact areas of materials but I really focus on circularity, human health, and climate health.
SM: Do you have any advice for those who are currently working in the healthy building movement?
LC: Definitely, try to keep in mind that things aren’t going to happen overnight. It is a process, take it one step at a time. Try to focus on the next thing that you can do on a project. Then think about how you can incorporate that lesson learned into all future projects. Even if it’s just finding one product that you can swap out, or getting a commitment from your firm. I would recommend everyone sign on to the AIA materials pledge, (or the Interior Design Pledge for Positive Impact), use the common materials framework to guide the way you think about material selections, and try to think more holistically about the impacts of your design decisions and materials selections.